Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights — Joseph Farnham, Script Doctor

Joseph Farnham
Joseph Farnham in an undated photo, courtesy of Mary Mallory.

itle writers are the mostly forgotten men of the silent film era, the scribes who relayed important plot points and character arcs through witty or descriptive lines employed on cards throughout a silent film. These bon mots weren’t just witty throwaways, they were often the glue that held disparate skits or weak plots together and made them coherent to screen audiences. Their resuscitation work revived flat films, and invigorated well-made ones.

Large, friendly, talented Joseph White Farnham ranks as one of the top title writers of the 1920s, the only winner of the Academy Award for title writing issued by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Farnham possessed great experience and skill in all types of writing and film production, helping his beloved movie industry develop into a major economic powerhouse by the 1930s.

Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.

orn Dec. 2, 1885, in Connecticut, Farnham began his journalism career at the New York Morning Telegraph selling advertising for the paper in 1909, and the film section in 1911, the first paper to dedicate space to film coverage. He began writing under the pseudonym Gordon Trent, the newspaper’s pen name for their film columnist, in 1912, as well as serving as advertising manager. Farnham loved moving pictures, quickly becoming an officer in the Screen Club, founded by actor King Baggot in 1912 as a film version of the Theatre Guild’s Lambs Club. Farnham put together a 100-page, suede leather, souvenir booklet for the group’s 1913 Ball, one which listed the history of the film industry and its growth, the formation of the Screen Club and its story, literary efforts of members, and photographs of leading directors and players. Film meant everything to Farnham, both as career and as hobby, and he devoted his life to pitching its history and entertainment value to all.

In 1912, Farnham joined Film Supply Co. of America as an assistant to the general manager, placing advertising and planting features about actors and directors in the newspapers, possibly the first use of publicity promoting stars and creators of films. He returned to newspapers for a short time in 1913, writing for The Billboard under the pen name, “The Big Fellow.”

Farnham worked as director of advertising and sales for All Star Feature Film Co. in 1914, and assisted Harry Raver with the release of a series of films called “Pope Pius X and the Vatican,” produced by James Slevin of the Sacred and Historic Film Co. He traveled to France in late 1914 to secure war film for the Carnegie Peace Endowment for a few months. When he returned to the United States in early 1915, Farnham added the title publicity manager to his duties at All Star, working to sell both films and players in newspaper/magazine ads and stories.

He moved on to Lubin Film Co. later in the year, serving as advertising director in charge of press, publicity, advertising, and sales. Moving Picture World called him, “Advertising man, publicity expert, press agent, before and after dinner speaker, and master of all things pertaining to the better way manufacturing of better motion pictures (sic),” in an Oct. 2, 1915, story.

In 1916, Farnham assisted executive Lewis J. Selznick with buying the book “The Common Law” for the Clara Kimball Young Film Corp., as he established his own company, Farnham-Boone Service Bureau. Working with fellow publicity expert J. Allen Boone, Farnham in effect packaged and produced films, as the company advised producers, exploited high-end films and served as a business manager for actors, writers, and directors, in short, a post-production house and agency all-in-one.

Farnham told the April 8, 1916, Moving Picture World, “We plan to make this service a big important factor in the motion picture industry. Mr. Boone and I have been working on plans for some time. We will have associations with a number of men who are experts in every line of the profession, so that at all times we can give the manufacturer the highest type of service, no matter what he wants. We have so systematized this that we can, if the occasion arises, provide a client with a studio, get a good scenario for him, cast all the parts, engage a competent director, and market his picture when it is finished.” The company acted as representative for such actors as Alice Joyce, Alan Hale, Rosemary Theby, Louise Huff, and Tom Moore, among others. They later changed the name to Amalgamated Photoplayers Service.

The company suffered financial problems however, and in February 1917, Farnham was named business manager, assistant to the president, and director plenipotentiary in exploitation of super feature productions of Frohman Amusememnt Corp., Later he was named in charge of productions and sales. In short, he was distribution head, marketing chief and financial officer for the company. As such, he spoke at conventions on subjects such as states’ rights and independent productions.

Farnham gained his first actual film production credit in 1918, serving as art director for the Frohman film “Once to Every Man.” He wrote titles and edited the Helen Keller story, “Deliverance” in 1919, and his film writing career blossomed. In 1920, he wrote scripts and titles for “The Wonder Man” starring Robert Barrat, and “Little ‘Fraid Lady” with Mae Marsh, as well as edited the films “Sky Eye” for Sol Lesser and “Bachelor Apartment” for the Arrow Film Co. Farnham edited Robert Z. Leonard’s “Moths” in 1921, and in 1922, wrote “The Snitching Hour,” while also writing and cutting the Dorothy Gish film “The Country Flapper.” In 1923, Farnham titled “Radio-Mania” and “Mary of the Movies,” working on “Reckless Romance” and Richard Talmadge’s “American Manners” in 1924. Early in 1925, he created titles for Al Christie’s “Stop Flirting,” Sydney Chaplin’s “Charley’s Aunt,” and the film “His Secretary.”

Later that year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios signed him up, where he would eventually write titles, scenarios, or dialogue for more than 74 films, including “The Big Parade,” “Tell It to the Marines,” “The Red Mill,” “The Unholy Three,” “London After Midnight,” “The Crowd,” “The Midshipman,” “The Cameraman,” “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” “Tide of Empire,” “Montana Moon,” and “The Big House.” Reviews claim his skill at writing titles helped save the Davies’ film, “The Red Mill.” Farnham helped congeal stories, add punch, and shape better pictures, employing a moviola to watch scenes while creating titles. His success led to his assignment in editing Erich von Stroheim’s massive epic “Greed” for the studio. Because of his skill, Farnham was recognized as one of the experts in the business for saving and editing pictures.

y 1924, studios had realized how important title writers were to selling pictures. Tom Miranda, Goldwyn title writer, explained in the Feb. 10, 1924, Los Angeles Times: “Titles are like guide posts, inserted throughout a picture to direct the attention of the spectator — to point the way. They should be illuminating, but simple, lest they fail to deliver the message home. When necessary, they should create atmosphere…not by multitudes of words that preach long-winded sermons, but plain words, the right words, whether humorous or dramatic. If you have a message to broadcast, it is not necessary to teach men; it is only necessary to reach men… .”

Walter Anthony, Universal’s editor in chief of its titles department, described their importance this way: “Good titles in a photo drama are like good accompaniments at a concert. They ought to be good, but they are noticed only when they are bad…A good title frequently goes by unnoticed by the audience, because the average individual is rapt in the action on the screen, and his senses synchronize with the object that is entertaining him. However, an improper title or an amateurishly written one would jar his finer sensibilities, as would a false note, with the result that his entire attention is for the moment focused on the phrase which has just disturbed his trend of thought.” Good writing was unobstrusive, but vital in relaying the story.

Title writers promoted their important status in clarifying plot to audiences, and scripters such as Farnham, Julian Johnson, Herman Mankiewicz, George Marion Jr., Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Ralph Spence, and others formed the group, the “Titular Bishops” in October 1927 at the Ambassador Hotel. Their aim was to establish title writers and story men as one of the most integral positions in crafting films.

Motion Picture News pointed out in February 1928, “In the last few years, the position of title writer has grown into something entirely different from his former lowly estate. He is no longer looked upon as a sort of superior proofreader, engaged merely to put into grammatical English the ideas already determined for the picture subtitles, but in many instances it is his constructive ideas which integrate the celluloid delivered by the director to the production. From his humble beginnings, the title writer has gone forward by the force of his own value, until now almost every studio has among its principal executives an editor in chief, who next to the producer himself, has the last word in the finishing up of every production.”

Farnham served as one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, acting as one of its first governors in the writing branch. In 1929, he was awarded the one and only Oscar ever awarded for Title Writing for his consistent work in 1927/1928.

With the coming of sound, Farnham switched over to dialogue and scenario writing, contributing to many of MGM’s top films.

Unfortunately, on June 2, 1931, Farnham passed away after suffering from a heart attack. He was only 46. The writer therefore earned the sad distinction of becoming the first Academy Award winner to die.

Farnham also serves as another ironic footnote in AMPAS history. Several years ago, the organization hoped to exhibit all the Oscars presented in that first Academy Awards ceremony, but Farnham’s award could not be located, its whereabouts unknown.

Forgotten today for his outstanding work in establishing the importance of writers in shaping wonderful films, Joseph Farnham is probably now best known as the answer in two trivia questions relating to Academy Award history.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights — Joseph Farnham, Script Doctor

  1. Terry prather says:

    I have a oscar statue holding a star with the mgm logo in the middle of the star is it possible this could be joesph farnham missing oscar?


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